“No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away”
Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man
With 3 September reminding us of the birth anniversary of the iconic Uttam Kumar and the celebrations that take place in West Bengal as tributes to him on his birthday and death anniversary, it appears that the ripples that he caused have not died away and from the way things are flowing, they may never die.
In 2004, as a tribute to this actor, a life-size statue was constructed at Tollygunge where Kumar spent a major slice of his working days. In 2009, in a rare tribute to Bengali cinema’s best matinee idol Rameshwari Handa, then chief postmaster general, West Bengal Circle, Kolkata, on behalf of the department of posts, India, released a commemorative postage stamp of Kumar on 3 September, the day that marked the 83rd birth anniversary of the late star. The stamp was released at Uttam Mancha, a theatre founded by many fans of Kumar several years ago.
Then Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi who released the first day covers and stamps, detailed that he would forever remember the three films he had seen with Kumar as the major star — Jotugriha, Sanyasi Raja and Nayak. “He was not only an actor in these films, but was also a perceiver of truth. Everything popular is not always true. Everything true is not always popular. But Uttam Kumar is both true and popular. So, if one Uttam Kumar has left us to go yonder, another keeps living in the hearts of every Bengali. He is loved by every Indian who appreciates high standards of acting. His films are a benchmark for very good acting.”
There were serpentine queues outside the auditorium in the lounge where two stalls had been put up to sell the postage stamps and the first day cover cancellations. The stalls folded up within an hour after the speeches were over because every folder and stamp was sold out.
In 2012, Rohit Mukherjee, then 20, an avid collector of film memorabilia comprised of posters, lobby cards, stills, song books of old Bengali films, put up a recent exhibition in Nandan IV exclusively dedicated to Kumar. The exhibition was a rich layout of still photographs, autographs, film props, costumes, press handouts, brochures and kits, programmes, logos, glass slides, industry-related magazines, scripts, art work, sketch books maintained by art directors, storyboards and original screenplays.
Mukherjee has inherited this passion for collecting and storing film memorabilia from his father Rudrajit Mukherjee, a renowned and perhaps the only collector of such memorabilia in the country for his rich collection of posters, lobby cards, calendars, song books, record jackets and match box labels from Bengali cinema.
Interestingly, the greatest star of Bengali cinema was labelled “Flop master general” at the outset of his career. When he stepped into films, every single one he starred in, flopped one after another, tagging him to the label he worked hard to wipe away. Many in the film industry had given him up as a “lost case”. It took a long, hard struggle, shedding of silent tears, rising above deep frustration and a determination to succeed, come what may, to the pinnacle of success. A success that has transcended death.
Towards the end of 60s, Prasad, a Bengali cinema monthly edited by the late Rabi Basu, decided to bring out a special issue on Kumar. When the proposal was put forth to the star, he put his foot down. “Special issues are planned when someone dies. Do you consider me a dead man, or a man about to retire from films?” Basu’s persistence paid off and Kumar agreed to the idea on condition that any accusations on grounds of publicity hunting would be borne by Basu himself. As if Kumar needed publicity! When the issue finally hit the stands, it sold out within a couple of days and had to be printed all over again.
The issue, apart from lots of photographs of the star-actor and a long interview with him, carried views and interviews of stalwarts in the film industry, in Bengal and Mumbai, who spoke at length on the star-actor. He made his debut as an “extra” in a film called Mayadore in 1947.
This year marks his 92nd birth anniversary. To commemorate the day, a film publicity person Sudipta Chanda initiated a unique calendar featuring posters of several films starring Kumar. These were manually drawn and painted posters at a time when digitalisation was far away.
The calendar features 24 film posters covering a high range of variety from very popular films like Harano Sur, Dui Bhai, Shapmochan, Ogo Badhu Sundori, Saptapadi, Nayak, Abak Prithibi, Sagarika, Chirodiner, Antony Firingi, Dhanyi Meye to some not so popular films like Kankabotir Ghat, Shikar, and Putro Badhu find place in the calendar which is a collector’s item marked for posterity. “I grew up watching his films. I can recall my childhood memories through his films. I even remember I watched Khoka Babur Protabartan, Ogo Badhu Sundori on the big screen at Bharati cinema during it’s rerelease with my parents. This calendar is my humble tribute to the legend whose memories and films grow stronger with every passing year,” said Chanda.
“I pattern and redefine my romantic scenes according to the star I am cast against,” said Kumar once when questioned about how he manages to bring out a hit with other female stars also. “With Suchitra, there is a kind of healthy competition; we are trying to compete with each other without really trying to take away the other’s scene.
“When Arundhati Mukherjee was my leading lady, I tried to bring an intellectual flavour in my performance. I exercised restraint in the love scenes because Arundhati was herself quite controlled. With Sabitri, I was always on guard. She could beat me hollow in a scene without my knowing it. She kept her senses totally alert in every shot. I have never seen an actress as powerful as Sabitri Chatterjee.”
Ray, who directed Kumar in Nayak, said, “He is completely spontaneous actor. No one around can come anywhere near him in the entire Bengali film world. He is not theatrical. His body language was free. He was not camera-conscious at all. Besides, he had the power to keep the audience captive with his looks and his performance. All these qualities put together go to make the complete actor —Uttam Kumar.”
Interestingly, the two milestones in the history of Bengali cinema that changed its very character happened in the 50s. One was the release of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and the other is the triumph of mainstream cinema in the hit film Agni Pareeksha, which introduced the greatest romantic pair to the industry —Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen.
Both these stars have carved a niche for themselves in the hearts of Bengali film buffs. But the charisma of Kumar far surpasses the charisma of his co-star for two reasons —he passed away in his prime at the age of 57, still playing hero to young stars like Moushumi Chatterjee and Sumitra Mukherjee.
The other reason is his proven popularity among young and old alike, among men, women and children so many decades since he passed yonder.